Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in France
Located at Arc-et-Senans, next to the spectacular Forest of Chaux, approximately 35 kilometers from Besancon in eastern France, the Saline Royale is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as follows: “From the Great Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, the production of open-pan salt.” Built in the 18th century, when salt was considered to be an essential commodity of great value, Saline Royale (Royal Saltworks) was designed by renowned French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (21 March 1736-18 November 1806), an early advocate of French Neoclassical architecture.
During the time of salt production in the area, the Royal Saltworks was served by the train line from Besancon to Bourg en Bresse, with the Arc-et-Senans station located within meters of the site. The region had quite substantial salt reserves with various methods being used to extract the salt from the brine-saturated spring water. In 1771, Louis XV appointed Claude-Nicolas Ledoux as Commissioner of the Salt Works of Lorraine and Franché-Comté, with the task of inspecting the various saltworks in eastern France. This gave him a unique perspective on what would be required to design a new salt-processing factory, the result of which was his design for the Royal Saltworks.
Facing competition from sea-salt brought into the region by rail, as well as opposition of local inhabitants regarding water pollution in nearby wells, salt production ceased at the Royal Saltworks in 1895. Unfortunately, some of the historic buildings were either damaged or destroyed in the subsequent years. In 1938 a camp was set up on the site for Spanish Republican refugees, with the French military installing an anti-aircraft unit there in the following year. Recognizing its historical value, the Royal Saltworks and its surrounding wall were declared as monuments by authorities in 1940. Despite this new-found status, German troops took occupation of the site in June 1940, and from May 1941 through to September 1943, French authorities used it as an internment camp to accommodate people with no fixed abodes. Following WWII, however, a public campaign called for the site’s protection - with a measure of success.
In 1982, UNESCO incorporated the Salines Royale on its World Heritage List as mentioned at the outset. Visitors have access to large parts of the site, with the Ledoux Museum and salt production buildings housing a host of exhibitions and a range of futuristic projects in their planning stages, and although many of these projects were never built, they provide fascinating insight into innovative thinking of the past.